Timeline: A History of Black Classical Musicians

Thursday, January 31, 2013

As America's first black president begins his second term, the progress for African-Americans in classical music offers a more complex picture.

While blacks continue to play crucial roles in jazz, gospel, R&B, hip-hop and other popular styles, hurdles remain in classical music. Fewer than three percent of U.S. orchestral musicians are black. Opera has a greater concentration of black performers, though singers face their own set of challenges in terms of casting. And when a concert series highlights music by black composers, it's often as part of Black History Month or another special event.

But as histories like Eileen Southern's The Music of Black Americans show, a long history of black involvement with the concert hall precedes contemporary developments. And black influences stretch far and wide: jazz rhythms and blues intervals infuse the concert music of Stravinsky, Copland, Ives and countless more recent composers.

Below is a timeline of some of the major achievements in the tradition of black classical musicians. Click here to view the timeline in full screenPlease share your own pivotal moments for black classical musicians in the comments box below.

Sources include: The Music of Black Americans: A History; Eileen Southern, ed. (Third Edition); African-American Music: An Introduction, by Earl L. Stewart


More in:

Comments [21]

Mary from United States

I nominate Adele Addison. She was a well-known soprano with a beautiful voice. Her busiest years as a performer were the 50s and 60s, most notably in the concert hall. She premiered well-known compositions by contemporary composers, was a favorite of and recorded extensively with Leonard Bernstein, was the voice of Bess in the 1959 movie of Porgy and Bess, and much more.

Jan. 19 2015 09:06 PM
Laurel Zucker from CSU Sacramento Music Bld.

LAUREL ZUCKER, flutist, and John Cozza, pianist are giving a concert on March 19, 2014 at 7:30 PM. featuring flute and piano music by Adolphus Hailstork, Chevalier de Saint George, Julio Racine, Jacqueline B. Hairston, Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson, William Grant Still and
Samuel Coleridge -Taylor. The concert will take place at California State University in Sacramento, Music Bld, Room 151.

Mar. 18 2014 02:34 PM
Muriel Tillinghast

I am very impressed with this information. Thank you.

Oct. 27 2013 06:27 PM
William Harper from chicago

I have to nominate Veronica Tyler to your list of important black musicians. A child prodigy, Veronica earned advanced degrees and went on to become an important American operatic star in the 60s and 70s performing major roles in opera houses and concert stages around the world. She performed in several state occasions at the White House. YOu can read more about her here:


Jul. 03 2013 10:14 AM
Rick Robinson from Detroit

Your record of the 1989 Detroit Symphony Orchestra crisis has several errors. The two state legislators who withheld their votes for $1.24 million did not serve on that committee again. There was a single full member at the time (Joseph Striplin... who is still there). And I was the one the musicians voted in (by a large margin). The orchestra also began a fellowship program which is still going. One of those fellows eventually won the principal trombone position. So DSO had 3 black members... until I resigned last year to help connect new audiences with classical sharing my arrangements, compositions and insights across the country. My comps blend some urban pop with classical counterpoint. It's alot of fun. Check out www.cuttime.com sometime.

Apr. 21 2013 10:33 AM
Anthony Stewart from St. Louis

I do not claim to be as great or advanced as the others mentioned on this page but classucal music is being carried in in ways beyond the traditional from digital composers like myself. We have as much passiin for the art as anyone and we shall continue to share it with the world.

Anthony Stewart
Digital Composer
Vizual Music

Apr. 07 2013 09:13 PM
Frank Morris from Jersey City, New Jersey

Thank you Mr McKnight and all who helped you get this timeline together. There's just so much I did not know about Black in Classical Music. I purchased several work by William Grant Still and am having a very delightful time.
I wanted to know if this timeline is available in PDF format or print format. I suppose by month's end the timeline will be gone. I would really appreciate a copy, I have so much learning to do. Thanks for all you do. I love your shows and I love the Jeff, Midge, and the choral music guy. I love WQXR I support it.

Feb. 24 2013 07:47 PM
Steph from Brooklyn

Where is Philippa Schuyler?



Feb. 23 2013 12:24 PM
Ian Walker

Where is the photo of Dr. George Walker, one of the greatest composer-pianist of any generation. Surely you must be aware of his famous Lyric for Strings, Trombone Concerto, Address for Orchestra, Lilacs and the incredible Violin Concerto. KUSC FM, an exceptional radio station in California, devoted five consecutive hours to his music two years ago and two additional hours this month. WQXR is a laggard.

Feb. 22 2013 10:03 PM
Charles from Cincinnati

Wynton Marsalis winning both classical and jazz Grammy awards (1983-84) is a major omission.

Feb. 12 2013 03:14 PM
david moran from Wayland, Ma

Joplin's left out because he is too often such a central figure?

Feb. 11 2013 10:14 PM
Brenda Hundley

As a African American I was thrilled to get all this good information and find out how much I don't know. Thanks for this time line. I am going to pass it on.

Feb. 11 2013 02:57 PM

@Sisko: thank you for the suggestion of Stanford Allen. He is an important figure in the history of the Philharmonic and we've added his arrival to the timeline.

Of course, with such a sweeping history it's impossible to be entirely comprehensive. But we thank you all of your continued nominations. Keep 'em coming!

Feb. 05 2013 08:19 AM
Richard from Ardmore PA

In classical music, spanning centuries and continents, there has been and continues to be a definite presence of black composers. They number in the many hundreds, yet we continue to know few and hear so little of their music.

Here is a basic QXR type question: How many of these black composers have something commercially recorded? My reply is more than two-hundred names.

There are many information resources and one useful composer name listing is the following: < http://astro.temple.edu/~rgreene/BlackComp/3_composers.htm >

Feb. 04 2013 04:19 PM

This listing is a good start, but needs improvement. For example, while mentioning that Donald White was the first Black/African-American musician to join a 'Big Five' orchestra, the listing should also mention others who followed and the orchestras that hired them. Sanford Allen was the first Black member of the New York Philharmonic when he joined and because the NY Phil was then the only regularly telecast orchestra, he was seen by millions on the Young People's Concerts led by Leonard Bernstein. The simple fact of his presence was a revelation to many viewers including my grandfather who had grown up in Jim Crow era south and who watched him with wide-eyed wonder.

Feb. 04 2013 02:58 PM
Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma from Appleton WI

A respectable start. Two typos: Saint-eeorges (not aint-George), James de Preist (not James de Preist). Write on!

Feb. 04 2013 09:17 AM

Perhaps QXR could open this up so the audience could put in these additional milestones and making a fuller list. Mattawilda Dobbs, James DePriest, Dorothy Maynor, just for a few more; it's an important history, with still some distance to go (who would have predicted that we would have a black president before we had a black music director at a major orchestra) or that we would have a Zulu principal at the Met before we had a black general manager of a large opera company.

Feb. 02 2013 10:55 PM

I agree with Andrew B. - it's a really incomplete list! Information about the very early blank musicians & composers is most interesting, but I'd like to see this list expanded to include others missed along the way - and brought up to date.

Feb. 01 2013 12:47 PM
Andrew B from Andrew B.

I guess this is just a very short list. Omission of major opera singers - Leontyne Price, Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman - and pianists - Andre Watts, Awadagin Pratt - all of whom must have been among the first blacks with major recording contracts (although I'm certainly leaving out some others, who were more important). I guess the purpose of the list is just to hit the major milestones, or else there would be too many dates.

A young aspiring musicians also deserves note this month: violinist Tai Murray, the woodwind quintet Imani Winds... others please add to this list.

Feb. 01 2013 11:04 AM

I enjoyed hearing William Grant Still's "Afro-American Symphony" this morning. It would be nice to hear it in other months of the year.

Feb. 01 2013 09:53 AM
Lara Downes

Florence Beatrice Smith Price was the first African-American female composer to have a symphonic composition performed by a major American symphony orchestra. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed her Symphony in E Minor on June 15, 1933, under the direction of Frederick Stock. The work was later performed at the Chicago World’s Fair as part of the Century of Progress Exhibition.

Feb. 01 2013 01:13 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About Black History Month

WQXR commemorates Black History Month with a range of programming throughout February. Discover new works by black composers, and classic performances by African-American artists.